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A scene from "The Battered Bastards of Baseball." Courtesy Sundance Institute
Review: ‘The Battered Bastards of Baseball’ a spirited retelling of ‘Maverick miracle’

As file footage of the former Hollywood actor rolls, Bing Russell radiates off the screen explaining his plan to start an independent baseball team.

It was 1973 in Portland, Ore., and Russell struck out to turn his lifelong passion into a reality, shelling out $500 for a Single A franchise in the Northwest League and placing an ad in "Sporting News" to fill out his roster. They would be called "The Portland Mavericks" and they would challenge the fabric of the Major League Baseball farm system with every curveball, double and stolen base.

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The story of the Mavericks was told at the premiere of "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" on Monday night at the Sundance Film Festival, the directorial debut of brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, Russell’s grandsons.

The documentary is upbeat and energetic from the beginning, enrapturing the audience in Bing’s larger-than-life personality and determination to turn organized baseball on its ear. At the time, independent teams had ceased to exist because the professional teams had absorbed them to develop players before they hit the majors.

The Mavericks roster was filled with castoffs, misfits and "vagabonds" as they’re called in the film, including left-handed catcher Jim Swanson, briefly disgraced major league pitcher Jim Bouton and relief pitcher Rob Nelson, who said the Mavericks "led the league in stubble." The team had a designated "ball dog" and a player that held up a burning broom whenever the Mavericks swept an opponent.

Russell is the real star of the documentary, however. The former "Bonanza" supporting actor and father to Kurt Russell is gregarious and steadfast in his belief that the Mavericks would succeed, even when very few others shared his vision. Archived television interviews and newspaper clippings in the documentary were so well sequenced that it seems like Bing was sitting nearby in the theater, sharing a laugh and telling stories of the times he spent as a kid with players like Lou Gehrig and Lefty Gomez.

Kurt Russell made an appearance at the premiere and became emotional answering a few audience questions after hearing his father’s voice for the first time since Bing died in 2003.

The Mavericks were ousted almost as quickly as they roared onto the baseball scene, playing from 1973 to 1977 when Major League Baseball had finally had enough and bought Russell out to install a Pacific Coast League Triple A team in the Mavericks’ place.

Independent baseball has since been revived, with teams strewn all over communities in the United States that can be traced back to Russell’s vision that the game he loved was about passion and fun, not money and player development.

An independent baseball team setting attendance records, run by a Hollywood actor and featuring players that were written off and counted out.

As "Battered Bastards" proves, it truly was "a Maverick miracle."

— Brennan Smith



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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